Coaxing straight talk from masters of spin

Interviews: Towson professor Martha Joynt Kumar goes to the source to unravel the secrets of White House news operations.

March 22, 2004|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

In an age when candid, on-the-record talk is as rare in Washington as cows on the National Mall, D.C. insiders are opening up to an unlikely audience: students at Towson University, a college well outside the political loop.

It may be one of the best-kept secrets in Washington. Every Monday night this semester, prominent White House officials and reporters have been submitting to 90-minute interviews with Martha Joynt Kumar, a Towson political scientist who has established herself as an authority on White House communications.

The sessions are carried by live video feed to a room 50 miles away, in the basement of the university library, where the 20 students in Kumar's Political Science 475 get to hear unguarded, unvarnished accounts of how White House spin works. And -- perhaps unbeknownst to some of the chatty interview subjects -- the sessions are then posted on the Internet for anyone to see.

Students have heard Dan Bartlett, director of President Bush's famously disciplined communications operation, talk freely about the campaign's use of Sept. 11 images in its television ads. They also heard Bartlett describe attempts to appeal to the "hook and bullet crowd" (fishermen and hunters) and dismiss the notion of a liberal bias in the press corps.

They've heard Mike McCurry, the former Clinton press secretary, say he wished he'd paid more attention to reporters' questions about Clinton's White House meetings with big campaign donors. If he had, McCurry said, he might have headed off what he called "one of the most debilitating scandals" of the Clinton presidency.

And they've heard reporters from The New York Times and other national newspapers speak at length about the frustrations of covering a rigorously on-message White House and defend themselves against criticism for not being tougher on Bush.

Unexpected array

Sabina Cudic, a political science and international studies major from Bosnia, speculates that the visitors may be so frank because they're talking to students in a different city.

"I even brought some friends to one class to watch," she said. "I did not expect it to be this high-level. You have this amazing array of people."

Guests have included Helen Thomas, the veteran White House correspondent, who told students that after Sept. 11, "we all rolled over and played dead." Bush press secretary Scott McLellan is scheduled to appear later in the semester, as is CBS correspondent Bill Plante.

The stature and diversity of Kumar's guest list is a tribute to her reputation at the White House, where she has become known, over time, as a neutral and sober observer in an ever-more partisan environment.

Through both Republican and Democratic administrations, Kumar has quietly watched how presidents and their aides interact with the news media. Her research appears to be as scientific as such a study could be: Among other things, she has tallied the news conferences and other media exchanges held by all the modern presidents to get some measure of the access they provided.

Where President Dwight D. Eisenhower gave a total of 730 public remarks or addresses in his two terms in office, President Bill Clinton -- spurred in part by the advent of cable news -- gave 4,477.

At the same time, Kumar's research has documented the sharp drop in news conferences held by Bush in comparison with past presidents. Nine months before the end of this term, Bush has held 66 news conferences, only 11 of them solo, where his father held 123, most of them solo.

Kumar also tallies less formal exchanges with reporters, which for Bush have declined by half since 2002. "There's not a lot that we [can] count with the presidency," she says. "With communications, this is kind of it."

Kumar, 62, settled at Towson in the early 1970s partly because the college was closer to her husband's job in Delaware than a Washington school would have been. She has since moved to the capital, where, commuting to the White House via Vespa motor scooter, she spends much of her time chatting with reporters in the cramped press room and observing the daily briefings of the presidential spokesman.

When Bush appears at White House events, Kumar takes notes on the mechanics -- the kind of podium used, the types of people sitting behind him. "I'm just looking at how the place works," Kumar said.

Once a week, she brings in fresh-baked brownies to thank reporters and officials for letting her watch them in action. Even more appreciated, they say, is the historical perspective she can provide. Reporters and administration officials alike talk of seeking Kumar out for advice.

"Martha is a prominent fixture in the White House press operation and has a great institutional knowledge of what has been done and what hasn't been done," Bartlett told the Towson class in his March 8 session. "We've found out the hard way on a few things."

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